Predicting the outcome of an Uttar Pradesh election can be injurious to health. In 1993, extensively covering a UP election for the first time, when my editor asked me for an opinion, I promptly claimed that a Ram wave was sweeping across the state against the backdrop of the Babri masjid demolition. I was proven horribly wrong: The caste arithmetic of the formidable Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance trumped the emotional appeal of Ram Lalla.
Once bitten, not twice shy: Twenty-four years later, I am putting my neck on the line once again and forecasting a likely BJP win in Uttar Pradesh. In a seemingly ‘wave-less’ election where 403 constituencies are witnessing fierce competition almost everywhere, this may be a big call to make. But there is reason to believe that the lotus is poised to bloom in the country’s most politically prized state.
Firstly, the sheer numbers back the BJP’s claim to be UP’s party number one. In 2014, the BJP-led NDA got 42% of the vote and an astonishing 73 of 80 Lok Sabha seats. While that was an unusual ‘wave’ election, the fact is even a highly unlikely 10% decline in the BJP vote could be enough to give it a leadership position in the state. The SP swept to power in UP in 2012 with 29% of the vote, while in 2007, the BSP got a majority with 30% of the vote.
Some analysts have compared UP with the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, claiming that the SP-Congress ‘gatbandhan’ has changed the electoral numbers game in the state. But this is a false comparison: In Bihar, we had a broad anti-BJP ‘maha-gatbandhan’ (grand alliance), which meant that there was a bipolar contest and at even 34% of the vote, the BJP was pushed to a poor second place. In UP, by contrast, we have a tough triangular fight: Had the two principal players Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav fought together like Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad did in Bihar, the BJP would have struggled to make an impact. The Congress, by contrast, in UP is still a ‘kamzor kadi’ or weak link in the alliance.
Second, it appears that Narendra Modi has successfully bridged the Delhi-Lucknow divide in a state election. His opposition may label him an ‘outsider’ fighting the ‘UP ke ladke’, but the fact is, Modi has struck a chord in the Indo-Gangetic plain. In his adopted village of Jayapur near Varanasi, the road has been washed away, the solar panel batteries have been stolen, the toilets don’t have water supply, and yet, every villager one meets, including in Dalit bastis, says they will vote for ‘Modiji’. In Varanasi’s paan bhandar, traders admit demonetisation has hurt them, but they still chant ‘Har Har Modi’. And on the banks of the Ganga at Assi Ghat, a mahant says the Namami Gange project is eyewash but he will still vote for the PM.
Clearly, the PM, despite unfulfilled promises and a weak local BJP leadership, still retains voter trust and goodwill. Again, the attempt to draw a comparison with Bihar doesn’t quite work. In Bihar, a Nitish Kumar had addressed core issues: Roads, electricity, and crucially, law and order and women¹s empowerment. In UP, Akhilesh Yadav¹s ‘kaam bolta hai’ slogan resonates only in pockets: There is a bit of a ‘UP Shining’ trap in the glossy advertisements that showcase the Gomti riverbank in Lucknow but you can’t ignore the darkness in a Gorakhpur village. And while his emergency crime helpline is a laudable initiative, the image of the Samajwadi Party ‘rowdies’ still haunts the party. Akhilesh could still be the future of UP with a strong youth connect, but may not be its present: “We’ve tried Maya and Yadavs, ek baar Modiji ko bhee chance dete hain!’ is an often-heard refrain.
In a sense, Modi symbolically offers hope amid UP’s over-arching despair. Aligned to this is the artful messaging of political Hindutva, calculated to polarise the electorate. In the 1990s, the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign overtly attempted to consolidate a Hindu identity. Now, a more devious strategy is underway to link caste and community identities to the magical word ‘vikaas’ or development. The odious comparisons between availability of bijli during Ramzan and Diwali and the false claim of discrimination in laptop distribution have been designed to stoke the worst fears and prejudices in a deeply divided society.
The aggressive Yadav and minority support for the Akhilesh-Rahul combine has only accelerated the counter polarisation. As a result, a new Hindutva alliance is being cemented where upper caste interests are being aligned to the numerically large most backward castes and even non-Jatav dalit aspirations. Hindutva politics based on anti-Muslim propaganda and ‘hope’ embodied in the Modi persona offer a deadly combination: The UP voter may well be intoxicated by it this time.
Post-script: One of the great joys of covering a UP election is to listen to the sharp one-liners from politically conscious voters. Ask a shop-keeper in Jaunpur on the PM’s ‘shamshan-kabrastan’ controversial comparison, pat came the reply: “Sir, chunav hai, pehle neta hamein jeene nahi deten, ab hamein marne nahin denge!” (It’s election time, first leaders don’t let us live; now they won’t let us die either).